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North Carolina Injured Workers' Rights Laws

North Carolina establishes its rules and regulations for individuals employed in the state in Chapter 95 of the NC General Statutes, titled Department of Labor and Labor Regulations. Most North Carolinians will work their entire careers without giving much thought to workplace rights and regulations outside of their employers’ orientation classes.

Unfortunately, some people get hurt on the job and have to fight for workers’ compensation or work for employers who skirt their legal responsibilities toward their employees. At Younce, Vtipil, Baznik & Banks, P.A., our Raleigh workers’ compensation attorneys represent people who have been injured on the job and need help obtaining benefits they deserve. There are many labor issues for North Carolina workers to be aware of. We review some of the basics below.

Can You Fire Someone for No Reason in North Carolina?

North Carolina is what is known as an at will employment state. This means that, in most private sector jobs (not local, state or federal government), an employer can fire you for no reason, or “without cause,” under most circumstances.

Firing someone without cause is not legal if it:

  • Violates an employment contract that sets out the terms and conditions of employment and limits an employer’s ability to fire employees at will.
  • Violates federal and/or state employment statutes prohibiting discrimination or retaliation.
  • Violates a particular public policy.

If you have an employment contract, it may establish “for cause” reasons for terminating your employment. However, in North Carolina a contract is likely to give the employer wide latitude, and may include “at will” language. Because they are not required, you probably do not have an employment contract. An employee or policy manual that you are instructed to read and sign is not an employment contract.

There are about 30 federal and 10 state anti-discrimination statutes. A firing is considered discrimination and illegal if it is based on race, national origin, sex (gender), pregnancy, religion, disability, citizenship status, or age.

It is illegal to fire someone in retaliation for taking a leave of absence for a serious medical condition under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) or for having complained about a wage violation, workplace safety issue or an on-the-job injury. It is illegal to fire an employee for having filed a workers’ compensation claim.

One of many examples of violating public policy would be firing an employee who refused to lie under oath on behalf of their employer.

What Constitutes a Hostile Work Environment in North Carolina?

An allegation that an employer has allowed a hostile work environment to exist is typically part of a harassment claim, whether it is sexual harassment or another type of unlawful workplace harassment.

A hostile work environment exists when the employer, a supervisor, manager, or co-worker does or says things that unreasonably interfere with an individual’s work performance or creates an intimidating or hostile work environment. Typically they are illegal if based on race, color, sex (gender), religion, national origin, age, disability, genetic information or political affiliation. Such actions do not need to include a demand for “favors” or a job-related benefit to constitute hostile environment harassment.

A hostile work environment is one that the affected person perceives to be abusive or hostile and that a reasonable person would also find to be abusive or hostile. A hostile work environment is determined by an evaluation of all corresponding circumstances, including the frequency and severity of the allegedly harassing conduct; whether it is physically humiliating or threatening in nature; and whether the conduct interferes with the employee’s work performance.

Acts or conditions that may create an unlawful hostile work environment include:

  • Unwelcome or unsolicited contact, including touching or sexual advances.
  • Abusive behavior, including physical threats.
  • Offensive jokes, stories or epithets.
  • Existence of offensive drawings, pictures or objects.

Are Work Breaks Required by Law in North Carolina?

Employers in North Carolina are not required to provide rest breaks or meal breaks for employees who are 16 years old or older. But the North Carolina Wage and Hour Act does require breaks of at least 30 minutes after 5 hours of work for youths under 16 years of age.

Smoke breaks are not required for employees of any age. There’s no requirement for an employer to provide a smoking area, and an employer can ban smoking from their premises if they wish.

Generally, if an employer does give breaks, they must be for at least 30 minutes for the employer to deduct the time from an employee’s pay. An employer does not have to let employees leave the premises if the employee is completely relieved of duty during the 30-minute break, and the employer does not have to provide a breakroom. Generally, breaks of less than 30 minutes, such as a 15-minute rest break, have to be paid by the employer.

What Are My Rights if Injured as an Independent Contractor?

If you are an independent contractor, you are not considered to be employed by the company or individual that pays for your services. Your relationship with such clients is defined by the contract between you or your business and the business or individual that pays for your services.

However, your main concern as an independent contractor is whether you should be considered an employee. As an employee, you have many rights, as this article explains. For example, our attorneys have found that, once we examine their work arrangements, many so-called independent contractors qualify for workers’ compensation benefits after a job-related injury.

The U. S. Supreme Court has repeatedly indicated that there is no single rule or test for determining whether an individual is an independent contractor or an employee. The Court has held that the totality of the work activity or situation must be considered.

Among the significant factors in determining whether a worker is an independent contractor are:

  • The extent to which the services rendered are an integral part of the recipient’s (or “principal’s”) business.
  • The permanency of the work relationship.
  • The amount of the alleged contractor’s investment in facilities and equipment.
  • The degree to which the business controls the worker’s schedule.
  • The amount of initiative, judgment, or foresight in open market competition with others is required for the alleged contractor to be successful.

The absence of a formal employment agreement, the time or mode of pay, or whether an alleged independent contractor is licensed by state or local government are not considered relevant as to whether there is an employment relationship.

The N.C. Department of Labor says one of the most common problems is in the construction industry, where contractors hire so-called independent contractors who, in reality, should be considered employees because they do not meet the tests above for independence.

Others who should examine their work relationship(s) include:

  • Franchise workers (“franchisees”).
  • Trainees or students.
  • People who perform work duties at their own homes.

Help with Questions About Workers’ Rights in North Carolina

If you have concerns about your workplace rights or employment relationships when injured on the job in North Carolina, you can contact the N.C. Department of Labor online or toll-free at 1-800-NC-LABOR (800-625-2267). The North Carolina Justice Center also publishes a variety of information about workers’ rights.

If you have been injured on the job and you have questions about your right to workers’ compensation benefits, our board-certified workers’ compensation specialists at Younce, Vtipil, Baznik & Banks, P.A., are here to help. Call us now or contact us online for a free case review and advice about your legal options.

About the Author

David E. Vtipil
David Vtipil is an attorney at Younce, Vtipil, Baznik & Banks and concentrates his law practice in injuries due to negligence and workers' comp. David E. Vtipil was selected by his peers for inclusion in the 21st Edition of The Best Lawyers in America in the field of Workers’ Compensation Law.

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